Base Motives 

It's lonely at the top for Talent and Carnahan

When Jean Carnahan did her Annie Oakley act at a skeet shoot down in Braggadocio the Friday before Labor Day, a good case could be made that she was channeling her inner good ol' gal by bustin' clay with a twenty-gauge shotgun.

Turns out the incumbent Democratic U.S. senator is a pretty good shot, and a recent Post-Dispatch poll suggests her skills may have helped her standing among male voters in a race she's now leading, even though it's still considered a statistical dead heat.

But the Gunsmoke act did cause the National Rifle Association and politicos both Democrat and Republican to throw down on an obvious attempt to appeal to white male voters who live in the small towns and rural areas outside St. Louis and Kansas City.

"That's obvious pandering to the white male constituency, and that's offensive to me," says Alderwoman Sharon Tyus [D-20th Ward], one of more than 20 St. Louis-area African-American elected officials to sign a letter last winter expressing pique about redistricting and warning that it could dampen enthusiasm for Carnahan and other Democratic candidates.

Then came Republican challenger Jim Talent's rather unfortunate fishing foray -- sans the requisite license -- for largemouth bass. Talent's a policy wonk, a supposed ace at the fine print of complex legislation and a man who has milked much money from academia and lobbying, but he didn't know to stop by Roy's Sac N' Bait and plunk down $11 for a resident fishing license.

All of this caused some folks to ask whether Missouri's crucial U.S. Senate race, one of sixteen hotly contested campaigns that will decide whether Democrats will continue to control the nation's upper legislative body, would boil down to goat-ropin' in Rolla or a fiddlin' contest in Branson.

Of course, such you-might-be-a-redneck posturing and ridicule took place at the end of the silly season in politics. Now that the serious season is in high gear, there's a question that remains unanswered by both candidates, one that is particularly troubling for Carnahan's hopes of cranking out a significant turnout of African-American voters here in St. Louis:

Can you turn out your base?

Seems like an elementary issue. But in a campaign season with a marked lack of other hotly contested statewide races -- there's also a shortage of red-hot congressional, state Legislature and city contests -- making sure your unruly camp of voters actually show up and cast ballots in your favor makes the most basic point all the more crucial.

"The top of the ticket in a nonpresidential year always had turnout concerns, and this election is no different," says John Hancock, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party. "To a large extent, this race will be decided by who turns out their base the best."

State Auditor Claire McCaskill faces a relative unknown and convicted felon in Republican challenger Al Hanson -- not exactly a GOP poster child. McCaskill was supposed to play a tag team with Carnahan as an all-woman one-two punch at the top of the Democratic ticket, until the junior senator decided to make a pitch to male voters.

In the St. Louis area, where Talent was a three-term representative from the 2nd Congressional District and Carnahan needs a big turnout from the city's Democratic bastions, including the black vote, there isn't a hot citywide race, and big guns such as U.S. Representatives Dick Gephardt (D-3rd) and Lacy Clay (D-1st) don't face serious challenges.

"If you don't have an opponent, you're not driven to go that extra mile, and there aren't a lot of guys out there who have serious challengers," says one longtime St. Louis-area state legislator. "It's going to take a lot more grunt work to turn out the numbers [Carnahan] needs to win."

In other words, Carnahan and Talent, at the top of their tickets, are slogging through this race by their lonesome, forced to rely on their own money and muscle and the considerable help of their parties instead of the galvanizing help of down-ballot allies. They face negligible opposition from Libertarian Party candidate Tamara Millay and Green Party candidate Daniel Romano, but in the hard math of politics, the only whole numbers in this equation are Jean and Jim.

"There are no coattails, and there's nobody pushing the car," says one prominent city politician. "There not being any downstream races is going to have an impact on that election. The lack of down-ticket races can affect both of these guys."

That could be bad news for Carnahan, who only has to look back to Attorney General Jay Nixon's failed attempt in 1998 to unseat U.S. Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond for proof of what can happen to a white Democrat who pisses off black voters in St. Louis. Nixon angered black voters and pols by pushing to end the city's school-desegregation agreement.

Carnahan hasn't done anything so overt. But resentment of her lingers, in spite of her sunnier poll numbers and two sitdowns called by Clay the Younger to smooth the feathers of black leaders who still want to vent their anger about redistricting at her.

Remember, though, Clay the Younger isn't his father, former Representative Bill Clay, the man many African-Americans still refer to as "the Congressman" even though he is long retired. And the political climate has changed dramatically since Clay the Elder left office, particularly the decline of unions and other political fiefdoms that made turnout a much easier thing to turn on.

"The infrastructure you used to be able to call on has gone flat," says one veteran African-American politician. "There's very little leadership coming from either the African-American political community or the white political community. Based on the way things are right now, it's a heavy lift for everybody. There's a lot of frustration and disappointment out there."

Even though she didn't play a role in the redistricting fight, there is still a sense among African-American politicians that some Democrat, any Democrat, should pay the freight. Add that to a pronounced lack of enthusiasm for this race, and you have a recipe for low black turnout at the exact time Carnahan needs it to be high, says the African-American politico.

"The question is, will we have 20,000 voters from the African-American community or will we have 30,000 or 40,000? She needs to be pushing for it to be 30,000 or higher," says the pol.

Alderman Mike McMillan (D-19th), who supports Carnahan and backed Jim Shrewsbury in the August primary race for the presidency of the Board of Aldermen, says it's unfair to make Carnahan pay for the perceived sins of others in the redistricting battle.

"I never felt she was in charge of or responsible for that," says McMillan. "The ones responsible for redistricting should be held accountable, not her and every other Democrat running. You can't hold [Mayor] Francis Slay accountable for each and every thing I do, but he's a Democrat and I'm a Democrat."

There's a bit of historical silver in the clouds for Carnahan -- Talent lost St. Louis County to Bob Holden in the 2000 gubernatorial election, a clear indication of the demographic shifts that have made the county more diverse, with more blacks living outside the city than in it.

And lately Carnahan has been sounding the right notes on jobs, Social Security and health care.

But even McMillan sees Carnahan's race as a lonesome effort, in spite of the considerable resources at her command for television ads and get-out-the-vote efforts.

"She is at the head of the ticket, and the excitement will have to be aroused by Senator Carnahan because there aren't any other races to get folks out," he says.

Another Carnahan supporter, former St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., agrees.

"At the end of the day, voters in the African-American community are going to conclude that it's better to have her in office than have a Republican take over," says the Boz. "I'd rather have Jean Carnahan in office and have the chance to argue with her about issues than take my chances with a Republican. But that doesn't lead to enthusiasm and turnout. That's going to have to come from her and the people in her campaign."

That's Tyus' point, but she delivers it with a much sharper edge.

"I don't hear any fever or any sentiment of 'Oh, I've got to get out there and vote for Jean Carnahan," she says. "Remember -- until the August primary, they never voted for Jean Carnahan; they voted for her dead husband."

Tyus isn't the only one shaking her head about Carnahan's pitch to the Bubba vote. Bosley also thinks it's dumb politics.

"White Democrats have a tendency to want to go after Joe Sixpack and the Bubba vote as opposed to going and spending that money and effort on increasing turnout in the African-American community," says the Boz. "The African-American vote is gold for Democrats -- all you have to do is go mine it."

And that's been part of Jim Talent's play -- he's spent time in North St. Louis, talking up his interest in small-business-loan programs and urban-empowerment zones. Not that this is going to cause huge numbers of African-American voters to cast votes for him, but, as Tyus notes, all he needs to do is give people another reason not to go to the polls.

"Jim Talent doesn't need to win the African-American vote -- he just has to make inroads," she says.

Better lose that scattergun, Jean. The silly season is long gone.

More by Jim Nesbitt

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